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Crossing guard at the Styx

Two men are walking the road beside the River of Forgetfulness. One is clad in the habit of a humble Dominican. His head is shorn, his hair just a monkish fringe, and whenever his bare feet touch the ground embers flare and there is the stink of roasting flesh and burning nails.

‘I loved them,’ Tomás de Torquemada declares. ‘I only burned them at the stake to save their souls.’

The other nods. ‘You told me you have never seen one of your victims here. Not a single Moor or secret Jew. So you succeeded admirably.’

Leon’s own mantle is made of swirling mist, gray. There are none of the bright gangland colors and even his hard-earned scars are gone. Leon is fat, baby-faced again, and no longer lean and dangerous. It is a kindly face, everybody’s favorite uncle and kids instantly like it. That was the worst aspect of his punishment at first: they love him, they never ever respect him. No one will cross the street to avoid him.

‘They called me a fat panda, mister Bumblebee,’ he muses. ‘Hit me and I had to skulk home every day to avoid the bullies. At home, my stepfather looked right through me, like I wasn’t even there. That hurt even more…’

‘Stick and stones,’ Torquemada says.

‘Except that he never even called me names. I wasn’t important enough to curse.’

‘So you took your first gun to your grammar school.’

‘I shot them all, yes. Gunned them down. It was an Uzi, nice and shiny.’

‘But they weren’t the same kids that tormented you. It was years later.’

‘I guess that is the reason I am here, Tomás,’ Leon said. ‘The One whose Name We are Never Able to Speak is heavily into revenge but it has to be righteous revenge. Like when the Egyptians spat on his prophet. Your victims have to be guilty.’

‘Me, I was perhaps overzealous,’ Torquemada confesses. ‘But I got a second chance to save souls. If I can convert them they might climb all the way up to Purgatory.’ He opens his book. It is the Koran this time he sees, which isn’t as bad as the Bhagavad Gita or the Tibetan Book of the Dead. At least the names are the same. Almost, and he can call Jesus a prophet if not the Son of God or the Savior. Every word is a lie but he isn’t worthy to use the One’s true words anymore. This will have to do.

‘We are there, my friend,’ Leon says and he looks up from his book.

Here the river Styx narrows, the cliff-sides almost touching. The river is fast-flowing, an evil mixture of the worst kinds of liquid and mists. Sarin drifts above whirlpools of Greek fire and sulphuric acid. Souls are very material in Hell, they can be burned and broken, break out in boils. Still, that isn’t the worst aspect of the river: in her deeps monsters swim, the great soul-devouring crocodile of the Egyptians, the Midgard Serpent. When they devour you you are truly gone, nothing left. Hell is forever, but there is always the hope that kind Jesus will batter down the gates of Hell once again, offer you a second chance.

Leon sees them straggle down the steep hillsides: a dozen ragged children who have blasphemed, disobeyed their parents, taken the One’s holy name in vain.

He scans the roaring waters. No trace of a hooked back-fin, no gleam of predatory eyes or questing tentacles. He steps down to the slime-covered rubble, raises his single weapon, his sole remaining badge of honor. The waters part for him, like he is a Moses, a loving parent. ‘It is clear,’ he calls to the fearful children. ‘Cross now!’ And they run across the empty stream bed, trusting him. Leon is the Crossing-Guard at the Styx and he wouldn’t give up that position for a golden throne or all the meadows of heaven.

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